TORONTO – For two years now, there’s been a lot of noise coming out of the Toronto area about a growing powerhouse on the Eastern Conference map.
The Bulls once again weren’t real impressed.
Even with Pau Gasol (right knee) back in Chicago, Derrick Rose (groin) on the bench, and Mike Dunleavy (flu) back in the locker room laying on a couch, the undermanned Bulls continued their dominance of the supposed second best team in the East, beating them 109-107, at the Air Canada Centre on Monday.
Not only was that once again a sweep of the season series, but was now nine straight wins over a Raptors team that can’t seem to solve the Bulls no matter who is healthy enough to put a uniform on.
Was it pretty?
Not by any means, especially in the fourth quarter, as the Bulls (33-32) watched their 13-point lead slowly distinguish into a nail-biter over the last 10:49 of the game.
But there’s a reason that Jimmy Butler is the best all-around player on the roster, even after missing 14 of the team’s last 15 games with a left knee strain. With DeMar DeRozan trying to play hero by driving the length of the court and tie the game up in the final seconds, Butler not only got his hand in there to stop the layup, but gave the ball back to the Bulls with less than a second left after a review showed it went off DeRozan’s knee.
“I’ve guarded him plenty,’’ Butler said of DeRozan. “I know you bring that ball down, you gotta bring it up to get it to the basket. Luckily, I had a quick enough hand to get a piece of it. Hit off his knee, and we took it the other way.’’
It was classic Butler to the rescue, as he finished with 13 points, five rebounds and six assists, playing in just his second game since Feb. 6. Not the greatest numbers, but considering the knee is still sore and he had to put in just under 34 minutes of work – including playing the entire fourth quarter – there was little to complain about.
“A win is a win, no matter how [bad] I played,’’ Butler said, downplaying his stat line.
Coach Fred Hoiberg saw Butler’s performance a bit differently.
One day after he told his team that they needed to “nut the [bleep] up,’’ Butler helped drove that point home with his defense alone.
“That was a huge play by Jimmy,’’ Hoiberg said. “Coming down, we made one of the two free throws, and just made a heck of a play on the ball. They set that screen high and Jimmy just fought through it.’’
Then again, Butler’s return to the court was made easier by the likes of Doug McDermott and E’Twaun Moore, who gave the soft Toronto defense problems all night.
The Bulls had built a 58-52 halftime lead thanks to McDermott shooting 7-for-7 for 24 points and Moore 5-for-6 for 11 points. By the end of the third, the lead was up to seven points, with the two then a combined 16-for-18, finishing the game with a combined 46 points.
As for Butler, with the Bulls jumping Detroit to grab back that No. 8 spot in the playoff seeding, sore knees and burning lungs will have to wait. In his mind it’s time to do whatever it takes.
“I think my knee is going to be banged up a little bit,’’ Butler said. “Gotta learn to live with it, get my wind back, get in that gym, get my rhythm back.’’